In 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto when he compared this image (Pluto circled) with one taken six days earlier and noticed the bright speck had moved.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto a few minutes before 8 a.m. on Tuesday. For hours, the spacecraft swiveled and twirled, aiming a suite of seven instruments at Pluto and its five strange moons.
For the first time, the Pluto system is more than just a smear of light, billions of miles away. When Clyde Tombaugh discovered the planet in 1930, it was just a tiny glowing pinprick among thousands of background stars. Over the years, our views of Pluto have improved, courtesy of some pretty heavy-duty hardware. Before New Horizons’ visit, the Hubble Space Telescope took our best images of the frosted dwarf planet; in them, scientists spotted terrains varying wildly in brightness, as well as Pluto’s four tiny moons.
With Pluto in its rearview mirror, New Horizons promises the most detailed views yet of this complex system. Already, the views from the spacecraft are astonishing. Assuming New Horizons survives its trip through the Pluto system, we’ll soon have mind-boggling, close-up images of this faraway alien world. The best is yet to come.